Thoughts on PlaysforSure and Zune Announcement

July 25, 2006

zune_logo.jpgBack in the saddle at work today after an extended vacation :).

Billboard has a good write up about a new Microsoft project under the brand name, “Zune“. I’ve received a few phone calls and emails asking for comment, but prefer to make my thoughts known here. Let me first say I’m not a member of the Zune team and in no way speak for them or Microsoft in an official capacity on this topic. With that out of the way, here’s my take.

From what I’ve learned, Zune is a new brand for Microsoft – Zune is about community, music and entertainment discovery. You’ll experience Zune with a family of devices and software that bring it all together. Yes, we all want more details, but we’ll have to be a little patient for more details. Check out www.comingzune.com and sign up if you want more details.

One question that gets asked here is the relationship to our existing PlaysforSure program. The Windows digital media team (of which I’ve been a member) has been focused on raising the tide for all boats, raising the experience for many partners through programs like PlaysforSure, giving sessions on 360 degree product design at partner events, offering frank feedback on product designs when requested and more. We want Windows to be the best place to experience digital music and entertainment. The Windows team will continues to work closely with service and device partners to make Windows a great platform for any digital media.

And one need only look as far as the MP3 player/portable media player market to find other examples of taking multiple approaches. At least two of the largest consumer electronics manufacturers compete on not one, not two, but three levels:

  • They supply memory for their own, and competitive MP3 players
  • They design and sell MP3 “engines” (systems on a chip) for their own, and competitive MP3 device manufacturers
  • They design, build and compete for retail space for their own, branded MP3 players

There are many other examples that can be drawn within Microsoft as well – for example, Microsoft Game Studios competes with independent game publishers for consumer dollars on the same platform (Xbox) also built by Microsoft. In all these cases, relationships of trust must be established independently between product groups or divisions. The same holds true here as well. It’s hard to understand unless you’re inside Microsoft but these groups have separate P&Ls (Profit/Loss metrics) and that sometimes means trying different strategies. To quote Jonathan Sasse, President of iRiver America in a recent CNet News.com article:

“Microsoft is a great partner and we expect continued success moving forward. The potential launch of a device by Microsoft does not appear to threaten our relationship in any way.”

I personally hope, like Jonathan, that this new effort will help to raise the tide once again for all players as the so-called digital lifestyle continues to evolve. PlaysforSure continues to be a Windows effort with some 140+ products in the market today and with the recently updated PlaysforSure 2.01 specification, the experience bar will be raised even higher. Zune is a part of a different group and P&L, but an integral part of Microsoft’s vision for “connected entertainment” that spans across offerings including as games, music and devices. So that’s my take on it.

(To learn more about the Zune community, check out Cesar’s new site at www.Zuneinsider.com or the official teaser site at www.comingzune.com, which will offer more information when available. For more on PlaysforSure devices available today, see http://www.playsforsure.com)

Update0: Brier Dudley of the Seattle Times weighs in on my post here.
Update1: Richard Winn, a member of the Zune team and new to Microsoft is blogging at www.madisonandpine.com

Update2: Chris Pirillo says the post is a link worth loading and notes I’m one of the Microsoft employees he trusts – thanks Chris 🙂

6 responses to Thoughts on PlaysforSure and Zune Announcement

  1. 

    And a very politically correct take on it, indeed. 😉

    I believe that Zune’s failure to incorporate the PFS standard will drastically hurt adoption — it seems to me that a player with Zune’s expected featureset *and* support for subscription services (Urge flies immediately to mind, and jumps up and down in excitement) would be a true iPod killer.

    After all, it isn’t enough to duplicate the iPod music experience, but to exceed it. Sure, Zune will exceed iPod in other regards (specifically, the social aspect, and the alleged OTA downloads), but when it comes down to a music device, it should (IMHO) do *more*, not *different*.

  2. 

    I would be curious to know what requirements the Zune team had such that PFS was not an option for them? I would expect them to try to leverage the pieces that are already in place as much as possible, so the PFS guys should really ask themselves if there is something fundamentally wrong with their approach that turned off the Zune folks.

  3. 

    I can understand the different divisions and profit and loss argument. However, Microsoft still needs to act as one company – that’s the way it appears to your typical consumer.

    The analogy of the hardware vendors competing on multiple levels isn’t entirely accurate. They are selling some of their parts or R&D to recoup their investment and lower their own costs. Zune ditching plays for sure isn’t doing that. One could argue it is increasing costs by not leveraging existing technologies. Plays for Sure may not be perfect and that may be why Zune needs something better. However, it would be more encouraging to see groups work together to improve the technology instead of reinventing the wheel. Everyone would win – Zune with a better product, partners with better technologies, and the consumer with better interoperability and choice.

    Here’s where I’m going…

    I have a 2 year old creative player and just purchased an iRiver Clix for my teenage son (the clix is awesome). We also subscribed to Napster To Go for a free 2 month trial. It allows up to 2 players and 3 PC’s to use the subscription music. We may try Urge out when WMP 11 is more stable. We can both put songs from our one account on our PC’s or players. I can stream to an XBOX 360 in the living room or a v1 extender in the bedroom. It all works great. Let’s say I want to get a Zune around the Xmas timeframe as an upgrade. We won’t be able to share the Napster account music. One of use will use Plays for Sure services and stores and another will use Zune. I wonder if I’ll be able to stream to the v1 extender (I’m sure Xbox 360 will get an upgrade for Zune). Zune is likely out of the picture if it can’t work with Plays for Sure as I would not want to pay for two different stores.

    Zune appears to be an iPod clone. Closed system only open to who Microsoft wants to work with. Unfortunately Microsoft doesn’t want to work with their own technolgies or groups. This creates problems not only for existing partners but existing and future customers.

    Also see:

    http://www.engadget.com/2006/07/26/switched-on-the-next-playsforsure-ad/

  4. 

    Here’s my tongue-in-cheek take on how you can get your Zune right now:

    http://geekswithblogs.net/lance/archive/2006/07/24/Make_Your_Own_Zune.aspx

  5. 

    So as I see it, Microsoft is going to toss their only obvious (and somewhat dormant) competitive advantage over Apple and that is the fact that there are over 300 million copies of windows media player out there along with 114 different plays for sure devices. Great. Just great.

    So, what about the Zune customer that buys a tune from Walmart and wants to drag it to his/her Zune player simply because of the expectation that something with a Microsoft logo on it has to work with something else that also has a Microsoft logo? "Sorry, but that file is incompatible"?

    This is purely River Kwai Syndrome to think that Microsoft should build a bridge against the Giant Apple without partners. And by creating a conflict like this within the company is a bit like making Excel incompatible with Word. So much for the futuristic vision of interconnectivity from Mr. Gates.

    And sure, MS has a lot of money, but so did Sony when they tried to launch Betamax. And closed, proprietary systems are the hallmark of why Apple only has a couple digits of market share in the home computing market.

    Keep it open Microsoft. Give people a choice and make freedom be the difference for your customers. The real Zune motto should be, "Life Is Choices" with a MS Window logo looking out to a beautiful field of green. Then have AOL, Yahoo, Napster, Walmart and others help to promote it to the ends of the earth while proclaiming how it gives consumers more options for where and how they get their music.

    I think that Plays For Sure was missing one element, the killer device. I don’t think for a second that the partners of Plays for Sure will have any trouble selling more Zune devices. Come on Robbie! Give us some credit. You only gave us a little over a year to take on Apple. Climbing mountains takes time, which is why you are giving Zune five years. I assure you that you’ll want some climbing partners nearby as the avalanche of public opinion heads your way.

    Jeremy Soule
    DirectSong

  6. 

    Telling a hundred vendors to follow your spec and then not following it yourself…

    …why, that would be like telling everyone else to develop for OS/2 while secretly targeting all your own products for Windows.